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Washington Prison History Project
Oral History Interviews
Interviewed by:
John McCoy
November 2, 2017
Dan Berger
DAN BERGER: Okay, so, John McCoy, welcome to University of Washington Bothell. I
am very excited to have you here and to have the chance to talk with you about your
book, Concrete Mama. 1
So, to start off, can you tell us why you decided to work in the prison, and what was
going on at the time that sparked your interest, and what did you hope to find out by
going there?
JOHN MCCOY: Okay, I should probably start out by saying that my early career was in
the newspaper business. I was a reporter and editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
The first job I got out of college was at the Walla Walla Union Bulletin.
And the way that the Union Bulletin worked—and I think many other newspapers
worked the same way—is that the new reporters get the least desirable beats. So, the
least desirable beat at the Union Bulletin was the penitentiary. I thought this was a
wonderful assignment. The other two assignments I had were food and religion. I was
not especially enamored with the food beat, but the religion in Walla Walla was fun, too.
So, my first glimpse of the penitentiary was as a newspaper reporter at the Union
Bulletin. At that time—this was 1977—the State Penitentiary was part of a, I guess I
would call it, a prison reform project—it was going a little bit south, but it was still
there—in which inmates were allowed a fair amount of autonomy inside the walls, and
even outside the walls. There were prisoner release projects, there was a lot of people
who came in from the local community—Whitman College is in Walla Walla, and a good
many students came in—the theory being that the more contact that prisoners have with
the outside world, the better chances there are that they will be released and not come
back again. An encouragement to say, “Let’s stay in contact with real life.” Well, life
inside the prison is probably the polar opposite of life on the street. A lot of things that
we take for granted on the street don’t work, or don’t apply, in prison, and I found this
At the same time, there was a very talented photographer at the Union Bulletin named
Ethan Hoffman, and we said, “This prison is the best story in town.” But that was not
the opinion of our editors, who, reflecting the community of Walla Walla, would just as
soon ignore the place.
John McCoy and Ethan Hoffman, Concrete Mama: Prison Profiles from Walla Walla
(Springfield: University of Missouri Press, 1981); second edition forthcoming from the
University of Washington Press, 2018.
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So, we found it increasingly hard to sell the newspaper on prison stories, unless there
was some huge violent incident, or inmates or a guard was murdered, kind of breaking
news like that. But the ongoing stories about rehabilitation, what was happening and
what was the environment, what opportunities there might be for prisoners with
education, they weren’t really interested in that sort of stuff.
So, we, after, I guess, a couple years, left our newspaper jobs, and set out to do a book
on the State Penitentiary. The book is based on our—it was done 40 years ago, but I
guess I would say it still has value today for two reasons. A lot of things haven’t
changed in prison. The book is divided into about 12 chapters, 10 of them on inmates,
two of them on non-inmates – a visitor and how they experience day-to-day prison life.
And the prisoners ranged from the very weak and vulnerable people who were in
protective custody, to convict bosses, to club leaders—at that time, the various clubs
typically divide along racial lines—were fairly powerful inside in determining the tenor
and atmosphere of the place.
So, Ethan and I spent four months in the fall and winter of 1978. We were allowed, by
the Warden at the time—the Wardens changed while we were there—the successive
Warden was not as keen on the project as the first one was. Well, the first one probably
wasn’t all that keen about it, but he tolerated it.
We asked to be inside the walls. We even asked for a cell. The Warden wasn’t going
to give us a cell, but he said we could come in as early as 5:00 in the morning, stay as
late as 10:00. We would be unescorted, which was absolutely crucial. If you walk
around with a guard, you’re not going to get any information from inmates. Then,
towards the end of our time there, we spent some time with guards, which was
interesting, because inmates who had talked to us earlier ceased talking to us. It’s a
very polarized world inside prison.
So, we spent four months inside. And then, I guess the following year, we went on to
new jobs. I went to the Seattle P-I in Seattle, Ethan moved back to New York. We
wrote and produced the book, which was published by the University of Missouri. And
I’m very grateful to say, thanks to your professor’s efforts and initiative, we’ll be
republished by the University of Washington Press next year. It’ll be pretty much the
original version, with an introduction by Dan. That’s a very long answer, isn’t it?
[laughter] I’d better give you folks some time to talk.
DB: So, I want to follow up on some of the things you said. First, you write in the
introduction to the book that you and Ethan basically quit your jobs to do the project.
JM: Hm-mm.
DB: And, given what you just said about how the newspaper responded to your interest
in covering the prison, the idea of quitting your job, I’m sure, struck them as rather odd.
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So, can you say a little bit about how the newspaper did respond? And also, what did
you guys for—were your working as well? What were you doing for money during that
JM: I’m not sure the newspaper was particularly unhappy to see us leave, because
during my time there, I organized a union. [laughter] We were paid $185 a week and
told we were overpaid. Now, admittedly, this was 1978, but nonetheless, it wasn’t very
much money. And Ethan was active in the union as well.
So, we left. Luckily, my wife is a registered nurse, and we were able to live on her
salary. Ethan went on to New York, and did some very wonderful work. He didn’t
address prison issues, but he did some work with butoh, that exotic Japanese dance.
He did a lot of photography in Japan, and made a career for himself in magazine
photography and in book photography.
Sadly, he died on a photo assignment in 1990. He was 40. He was on what he thought
was the roof of a school. It was actually a skylight, and he was four stories above the
ground. The skylight broke and he fell to his death.
I wandered. So, we were able to support ourselves. I got a job with the P-I about, oh,
six months into working on Concrete Mama, and then we managed to complete it about
six months after that.
DB: Can you tell us more about how the prison responded, the kind of conversations
you had with the Warden? You say in the introduction that he was initially opposed to
the idea, and ultimately he relented, and I think reading that now, the prospect is
unfathomable. [laughter] So, even though you say not much has changed inside, I
think just the fact that you were able to get the unfettered access…
JM: That’s true.
DB: …is a real reflection of that 1970s moment. I would love to hear more about the
kinds of conversations that you and Ethan had with the Warden and/or with other
government officials, outlining how you got to have such free rein at the prison.
JM: Sure. This was a very unique time—that I only appreciated subsequently—in
Washington State Corrections. Washington State was a leader in the [19]70s in the
prison reform movement in saying, “Are we just punishing these guys, and locking them
up for the length or their prison term, or can we do something with them? Or, can they
exist in an environment in which they do something for themselves, so that their
prospects are much better when they’re released and not returning to prison?”
There was a psychiatrist who was made the Director of Corrections in the mid-[19]70s
named William Conte, who had a very progressive, forward-thinking corrections
philosophy. He hired a Warden for Walla Walla. The previous Warden, who’d been a
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good old boy who grew up in Walla Walla, and had been there for years, was a pretty
much old-time hardliner, who had tried to bend a little bit because his boss was a
progressive reformer. It was sort of an awkward fit for him. His name was Bobby Rhay,
B. J. Rhay.
He was followed by a Warden named Douglas Vinzant, who was a minister from
Mississippi—e had a lovely Southern drawl—and was a Methodist minister, who had
had some history in the corrections business, who was truly a reformer, and was very
open to what was going on at the penitentiary at the time, of inmate self-government.
There was an inmate council, who were elected, and the idea was that inmates would
work with him to determine prison rules, and possibilities, and any kind of decisions that
would be made inside the prison community. Obviously, the Warden had final veto
power, but he tried to be collaborative in this prison reform experiment.
There started to be, though, in the State Legislature, the guards never really bought into
it. They wanted clear rules, and they clearly wanted to be in charge; and this sort of
cooperation with inmates, and negotiation with inmates, for many of them seemed like a
waste of time. And, in fact, they thought it created a more insecure environment. In
some ways, there may be some truth to the insecurity and the environment, because
more drugs, more weapons, more things came inside the walls, because there was a
more open environment.
So, as a result of a couple of inmate murders, and the murder of a guard, Doug Vinzant
was removed. He was briefly followed by his secondhand man, and then a fellow by the
name of Jim Spalding, who was a lifetime veteran in the State prison system—smart
guy—came in with the mandate to return this to the old ways—lock it down, restrict
inmate privileges. It was a sort of gradual process, until late [19]79. There was a riot
because the screws were being applied; there was a stabbing; the penitentiary was
locked down. I mean, everybody was put in their cells; there was no going out of the
cells. They spent about six months, so that when those inmates came out again, there
were new walls, there were new restrictions. It was a totally different environment, and
the Washington State Penitentiary pretty much looked like other typical prisons around
the country.
We went to visit the Oregon State Penitentiary, and realized that, boy, Washington
State was really trying something different. There were some reforms at other state
prisons, too, but this was a really unique time. Why did it fail? We could talk about that
a bit. Was it not pushed strongly enough? Was it the lack of backing? Was it the lack
of political will? There’s a lot of things we could speculate. But it really was an effort to
do something different in prisons, besides punitive punishment, and locking them up
and doing hard time.
DB: So, was it under Vinzant who you had those conversations with?
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JM: Oh, yeah. I didn’t answer your question. [chuckles] Vinzant gave us the initial
permission. And then, when he was fired, his successor, who lasted very briefly—that
was just a little interim period—said, “Okay.” And then, Jim Spalding came in.
Ethan and I had a conversation with Spalding, I think it was his first day on the job.
Everybody’s really vulnerable their first day on the job [laughter] because he doesn’t
really entirely know what he’s stepping into. Ethan and I said, “We’ve got to get to him
So, we scheduled time right after this press conference, in which we introduced
ourselves. We told him—he was aware of what we were doing, that we’ve been working
on this. He said, “Well, how much more time do you need?” And we said, “Well, give
us two months.” He reluctantly went sort of back and forth and he said, “I’ll give you two
Jim Spalding was a man of his word. He did call us in about two weeks later, and he
said, “Could I give you two weeks instead?” And we said, “No, we really like what you
originally agreed to. We’re trying not to create any problems for you. If we are, please
let us know.”
So, he abided by his word. He never told me later, but I heard afterwards that he said it
was one of the biggest mistakes he ever made was letting us stay inside, because it
resulted in the book. The article, I think maybe they read in LIFE magazine—you read
in LIFE magazine—which was, with pictures, reprinted around the world. So, it gave
this impression of the State Penitentiary as a place where outlier motorcycle gangsters
can motor around the prison yard, and was not good publicity for the State Corrections
Department. [laughter]
DB: Did you go in with the idea of writing a book?
JM: Yes, we did. Well, actually, we went in—originally we thought, we ought to do a
longer series for the Walla Walla Union Bulletin, because this is such a fascinating
place. The Union Bulletin was not interested. People don’t want to read more prison
news in Walla Walla, prison reporting. Then we thought that this place is such a
wonderful story that let’s just be daring, and quit our jobs and do a book.
DB: I’m curious how that first conversation [went]. Vinzant was more of a reformer, but
even so, there weren’t other books quite like this at the time, with maybe one or two
other exceptions. So, I’m just curious to hear what—you walk into his office, you say,
“Hi, I want to write a book,” and he says, “Okay”? And then you’re in the next day, or
JB: With Vinzant, I had met him earlier because we were working for the newspaper, so
I’d had a fair bit of contact with Vinzant. He knew me. Then, we came to him one day
with the book idea. I don’t know what—I think his motivation was to say, “What I’m
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doing here is good. It makes sense.” He was a very Christian…he often quoted
scripture, which was kind of interesting, although he was a Methodist, so he was kind of
a more progressive evangelical.
But I think he believed in the possibility of what we were doing. And, we were going to
approach it as journalists. If you read the book, I’m not an expert on incarceration or
prisons. We wanted to just say—we wanted to do it fair. Here’s what inmates tell us.
Here’s what their day-to-day life is like, in looking at various types of inmates. Here’s
what the Parole Board people say. Here’s what the Warden says. Here’s a guard. And
we wanted to use specific people to actually speak for a group of people.
So, Vinzant knew that we were going to approach this as journalists; that we would stay
away from fake news, hopefully, or tilting it one way or another. We were going to let
inmates speak for themselves. I did write an introduction, in which I speak for Ethan
and me, because we certainly had a point of view. But it was not meant to be an
ideological book to sell a certain approach to corrections or incarceration.
It was more to do honest, journalistic reporting; to say, you, the reader be the judge.
Here’s what they say. Here’s how they’re living. Here’s what they look like. Here’s
what they do. And Vinzant liked that.
DB: Did you have to talk to any other officials, at the Department of Corrections or
elsewhere, to get access?
JM: Not to get access, but politically, I talked to the head of the guards’ union—who I,
again, knew, because we had covered the penitentiary for, well, almost two years at this
point—a guy named Parley Edwards, a very straight-shooting guy, a Mormon by
background—and we knew that he packed a lot of influence with the guards, and that if
he was okay with us, that would really be helpful.
We also met with the Resident Council. The inmates called themselves the Resident
Council, the prison council. These were representatives, who were elected. They ran
political campaigns to govern in partnership with the Warden and his staff.
And it was a meeting just with the Council; no guards in the room, no Warden. And I
remember them—in fact, I think they had the idea that we were going to make a lot of
money on this book, at least some of them did. And we know how much money we
make on academic publications. [laughter] I remember one of them saying, “Well, how
many free copies can we get?” “What’s our split?” And others saying, “Well, how can
we trust you? How do we know”—we had a very candid and open conversation about
I was mentioning to Dan earlier that one thing that helped pave our way is that, like
everybody, prisoners liked pictures of themselves. So, Ethan and I made a very good
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decision. Ethan had to do all the work. He spent a lot of nights in the darkroom. We
said to any inmate, “We’ll give you a picture of yourself, however you want to pose.”
So, we had guys pose with weights, stripped to the waist, displaying all their tattoos.
One guy wanted to show us, in fact, his tattooed privates. So, Ethan took pictures of
whatever they wanted, but one picture only. And in return, they signed a release form
that said we could use these pictures in the book. And Ethan gave them a nice 8X10
copy, usually within the same week, because they wanted quick results. That created a
log lot of goodwill, and gave us a lot of access.
We respected the inmate prison structure, because there were all kinds of areas that
were off-limits to guards at this time. So, in order to gain access to these areas, we had
to have either the president of the Lifers’ Club, or the Chicano Club, or the Meditation
group, or Men Against Sexism, the various groups that are detailed in the book. Their
chief person, or one of their representatives, would accompany us. And, in some
cases, they said that if we wanted a private conversation with a particular inmate, they
usually respected that, too.
So, it was really playing politics with the prison structure, not just the official staff—the
Warden and his staff and the guards—but also with inmates. Because if you got
crosswise with any particular group, we would be out of there, or we could have done
harm to ourselves. There were certainly tense situations with some inmates.
DB: You started to say a little bit, but I wonder, to the extent possible, you could
describe any average day in that four months that you were there?
JM: Okay. The inmates were locked in their cells overnight. There were guards. I
think there were about eight cellblocks at Walla Walla, if I recall. And the day would
begin with morning chow, about 7:00. Meals were not served in the cellblock, except for
those that were in the segregation unit, or in protective custody.
So, they had to walk to a chow hall, and they were released by tiers, so that the chow
hall wasn’t overwhelmed at any particular time. Breakfast went on from 7:00 to maybe
about 8:00, 8:30. It was a pretty ugly brick building, a lot of metal tables that were cold.
The place never seemed to be heated adequately. There was a chow line of metal
trays. If things were rough, sometimes there were fights in the chow hall, or food was
thrown, there are always guards, of course, in these sort of places.
Then, from chow time, there was certainly not enough jobs to employ even a minority of
the 1,400 inmates that were there when we were there. And so, there was a real long,
idle day. Inmates were free to go back to their cells. There was recreation time in the
big yard, which, if you see the book, you’ll see the Bikers’ Club racing their cycles
around the big yard. You could play baseball in the big yard. So, there were some
recreational activities, with time limits.
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And there was, at that time—this ended after Vinzant—an education program, in which
they could complete their GED, get community college credits or college credits. WSU
and Walla Walla Community College, at that time, had a presence there.
So, there were some things to do, but by and large, half the inmate population was
pretty idle, which is a real problem. It’s a problem not only in terms of security, and
image, and what do you do with your time? But also, the fact that you’re going to go
back in the world, where you’re going to have to have a job, or you want to look for a
job, what kind of job skills have you created? What kind of mentality do you have when
you’ve been sitting around all day?
The clubs took up time, and some inmates spent time in their clubs. The Chicanos had
a running card game, but only Chicanos were admitted to that club. There was a Black
Prisoners Union. They had an area; you had to have permission to go in those areas.
So, they had activities. Card play. There was a good bit of dope smoking that was
basically tolerated that you could get an infraction for. There were harder drugs, too,
that got inside the walls.
Then, you’d go back to chow for lunchtime, and then the same sort of routine in the
afternoon. You could work. You got about—I don’t remember, it was a pitiful sum, like
a few cents an hour for working. You could use that money to buy things in the canteen
for overpriced pop, and stamps, and candy, and things like this in the canteen.
And there was a fair bit of scheming. There was a tunnel being built to tunnel out that
we only learned about—that’s one thing inmates didn’t tell us. [laughter] But it was
used after we were out of there, and four inmates got outside the walls, and then were
shot—not killed, but shot and wounded—and imprisoned again with a longer sentence.
The evening, I don’t remember exactly what time lockup was. It was fairly early, maybe
8:00 p.m., after dinner. So, there was a lot of cell time. These were mostly two-man
cells that were housing four. Like many prisons, then and now, it was very
overcrowded. Sometimes as many as six.
You did not—you were assigned a cell when you came in, but because of the Inmate
Council, and because of the willingness to recognize that some people are going to live
together better than others, you could find a new cell. You could negotiate that. But,
there were real estate guys in the prison who controlled—powerful guys—cells. So, you
had to buy a cell. Sometimes you’d get a cell equipped with a television, a nice
mattress and so on, but you paid for that. And you paid for that with money, drugs, sex,
pruno—which is inmate-brewed liquor—or other things. This was an economy that was
always negotiable.
Night. Most cells had televisions. You could watch television. They had access to
books and magazines, which became much more restrictive after I was there.
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If you had a legitimate reason for being out of your cell—for education, because of
work—you could usually get a permit. There was a license plate shop. I don’t know if
it’s still true today, but at that time, all the licenses in Washington State were
manufactured at the prison, metal license plates. Again, it couldn’t really employ that
many people, though. Some people had prison jobs, just to while away the time. They
might work in the cafeteria, in the clothing shop or some other place. Often, these were
advantageous, because you could buy and sell things that you had access to.
DB: You said before that the warden gave you access to the prison as early as 5:00
a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
JM: Hm-mm.
DB: But if people are locked in their cells until 7:00, and again at 8:00, what were you
doing or what did you see?
JM: I don’t think we went in at 5:00, ever. We did go in early enough to see the
breakfast thing, and see them unlocked at—whatever it was—7:00. We stayed in the
evenings. I think we may have stayed a couple of times, because there were visitor
groups from the outside that had classes, by special permission. There was Whitman
College students, I remember, who came in and kind of had a program of meeting
prisoners, and talking, dialoging about whatever.
So, there were evening activities. There were movies. There was a building that kind of
doubled as the Black Prisoners Union, but in the evening, there were films. There were
gatherings. There were outside shows that came into the auditorium. There were some
pretty outrageous stuff. There was almost a burlesque show, which seems kind of
inappropriate for prison. [laugh] I remember witnessing it one time.
The clubs sponsored—this was during Vinzant’s time—picnics and banquets, in which
outside visitors came in, kind of like the real world. That was the idea, to build those
kind of contacts. And some of those activities occurred in the evening.
We stayed till 10:00, mainly with guards, because that’s when there was a shift change.
So, with Parley Edwards and a couple other guards, we would accompany them
through their whole shift to see what they did. We may have come in for the first shift—
early—too, to accompany a guard. Or, to accompany an inmate who was sort of a
trustee, an inmate that was trusted and had more access. There was a guy who
worked in the education department. Only crime, murder, and he was doing at least
13/7, which is what you have to do—13 years, seven months—for murder. A drunken,
drugged crime that he was very unlikely to repeat. But, again, what do you pay society
for something like that?
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But, became very helpful to us. Very bright guy who explained, you know, “Here’s
what’s really going on in there.” “That’s bullshit that that guy said, and here’s what you
could check that with.”
We had a few inmates like that, that we trusted, who were helpful, who became friends.
I’ve had contact with two or three of them since that time, and stay in touch with them.
DB: You said when you started to lay the groundwork for the project that you met with
the Resident Council.
JM: Hm-mm.
DB: But, over four months, did you see the kind of relationships change. How did
people on the inside treat you as you were there day in, day out?
JM: Once we started talking to guards, there were some suspicions. First of all, the
guards gave us a hassle. There were guards that did not want us there. I wasn’t strip
searched, but I was certainly hassled, and detained, and told to “Wait here,” you know,
and kind of lots of little petty grievances.
Yet, we had guards that we’d made friends with, too, you know, who were more helpful,
and wanted to make sure that we weren’t just buying the inmate B.S. They wanted to
say, “Well, here’s our B.S., and here’s how we see these sort of things.” Again, as
journalists, there’s at least two sides, and maybe more, to every story, and you want to
be attentive and listen to all of them.
We spent the last month hanging around with guards, and there were some inmates
that stopped talking to us. Not many, but some, you could understand. “What are you
talking to the man for?” We explained why we were doing this, and most of them
seemed to accept that.
There were guards—there was a guy who had lost a hand in an explosion, a very
intelligent, young guard, who was really hostile to us originally. But I knew he had a
college education, which is unusual for a corrections officer. And I ran into him at a
grocery store in Walla Walla—this is the kind of town where you’d run into people—and
I said, “Jim, I know you really don’t like what we’re doing there. Can we talk about it?”
And he said, “Yeah, let’s have a beer.”
So, we met at a tavern, and I think we were able to say, you know, “We’re not just
buying the inmate line. We want to write a fair and honest book.” And that helped a lot,
because he had a lot of influence in the pen, and he said, “These guys are okay.”
Again, it’s how do you develop rapport with people? How do you be transparent and
accountable? You know, there’s an old convict saying “Your word is your honor.” It’s
not always true; you’ve got to honor your word. And we found a fair bit of that, among
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the staff and inmates. Some, obviously not all. Some people lied to us pretty
significantly. But, by and large, if your word wasn’t good, you were going to be in
trouble. If you didn’t deliver what you promised, you’re going to be in trouble. And that
was true for staff as well as for inmates.
Probably using old terminology here from the [19]70s, right? “Inmates” and “residents”
and “convicts.” [laughter]
DB: Something we talk a lot about in here as well. [laughter]
JM: I gathered that from the link you sent me. [laughter] I’m probably politically
incorrect, but this is a time warp of going back 40 years.
DB: This is a big question, but what did you expect to find at Walla Walla when you
went there, and did you find it? Or, how did it sort of fit with what you hoped or feared
or expected or waned to find when you embarked on the project?
JM: I don’t know that we had a lot of new expectations. There were only two
photographers at the Union Bulletin, and Ethan was always the photographer that
accompanied me on penitentiary assignments. And a lot of stuff went on at the
penitentiary. We’d been covering it for at least 18 months, maybe two years, so we
knew a lot of the players already.
I think my first revelation of being inside the place is sort of the response people have to
the book. Look, these guys are motorcycle gangs, and they’re in prison, and they have
their own area? These guys can smoke dope in their cells? All this sort of stuff that the
public thinks upon seeing a book like this.
I think that was our initial reaction, too, when we said, “What’s happening at this prison
that’s so different [from] how we, at least, had understood prisons—and, in fact, what
was going on at other prisons in the country?”
So our effort, first of all, was to portray inmates and guards sympathetically, meaning
not necessarily being on their side, but let them tell their story, and the chips fall where
they may. So, as I said earlier, we approached it as journalists.
And we thought it was a good story, first of all, because Ethan could get fabulous
pictures. I mean, a sweat lodge. I’d never been to a sweat lodge before, and certainly
not one inside a prison. A casino night at the Chicano Club. There were dancers that
were transvestite inmates. There was sex, there was drugs. But you say, “Wow,
they’re letting this go on in a prison?” Well, this goes on in the outside world, too.
So, we wanted to tell this story without making a judgment call, you know, that this is
really great, or this is really bad. This is the way it is. So, our expectation, I guess, was
to do a fair, balanced and accurate account of life inside a state penitentiary—a
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notorious state penitentiary—at a time in which hard questions were being asked about,
what is the purpose of incarceration, and what do we do? What do we do?
DB: You write in the introduction about how the process of being there affected you and
Ethan in the months afterwards. Even four months is not that long compared to people
who are incarcerated for decades. Did you find that it affected you after that?
JM: I think I probably got away from it, but there’s a whole lingo in prison, and the
language is sort of often X-rated. [chuckles] I don’t think, before going into prisons, I
used M-f as a regular part of my vocabulary, but I didn’t want to come off as being an
absolute square inside the joint either, and so we had to adapt their kind of language. I
think my wife looked at me sometimes saying, “What’s happened to you?” [laughter]
“This isn’t proper language.”
And I became—Ethan, too—we became maybe a little more suspicious. You’ve always
got to be watching your back in prison, at least a prison that was insecure as Walla
Walla was. I don’t say that word negatively, because maybe that’s a positive thing.
And you have to be careful not to fall for conspiracy theories. I heard a lot of theories
from inmates explaining their crimes that were just preposterous. Not a lot, but some.
So, trying to discern the truth. Luckily, again, because I cultivated—prison records were
supposed to be confidential, but I had an inmate friend, in the records department. I
said, “Can you show me So-and-So’s record?” He said, “I don’t know if I should do that.
I could really get my ass in trouble.” I said, “Well, how about if you do this, if you would
photocopy parts of the record that I want?” He said, “All right.”
So, I was able to verify the stories that inmates told me about doing their crimes. And
that was extremely helpful, because it helped me to develop a B.S. detector. But, after
you’re there long enough, it was pretty easy, I thought, to tell what’s true and what’s not,
about what’s going on.
I think I lost the first part of your question there.
DB: How it affected you afterward?
JM: Oh, yes, right. I tell you, I went away humbled by the experience, because I think I
went in, because we’d already been, like I said, at the prison two months, and a lot of
the naïve ideas I had about prison I had to discard. I went away, though, not—well, I
guess, feeling that this is really a destructive place. It’s destructive for the men who are
there. It’s dangerous. It does absolutely nothing to help them adjust. Most of them are
coming out again. In fact, it destroys a lot of their chances of having a successful
Walla Walla is in the extreme southeast corner of the state. You have to want to go to
Walla Walla to go there. No freeway will take you through the place. I grew up in this
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state; born in Seattle. I had never been to Walla Walla until getting my first newspaper
job there.
There couldn’t be a worse place to incarcerate offenders, because most of them come
from the west side—4/5s of the population—most of them come from urban areas.
They’re disproportionally—this is something you probably know from your readings—
poor, black, Chicano; have mental health issues; have addiction issues. They are not at
all representative of the people who live in Walla Walla. Not that it’s the virtuous capital
of the state. [chuckles]
So, they were totally different than the guards, who were local boys; high school
education; maybe some military service; white; rural; little or no understanding of who
these people are that they’re supposed to be working with, and helping—quote—
So, I guess my experience in going away—and I liked your textbook, I read your
textbook—is to say, after—what?—200 years of incarceration in America—we don’t
have a solution. We don’t have a solution that serves the people who are in prison, nor
one that serves us, who are the people on the street. I think we have some good
possibilities, some things that look promising—experiments with drug courts,
education—but if I were to go back to Walla Walla today—which is pretty much locked
down; no opportunity; totally controlled by the guards; inmate input not invited or
welcomed—how would I change it? I don’t know. I don’t know. And I wish I had a
more hopeful answer than that. But I’m a journalist, not a corrections guy. [laughing]
DB: Did you continue to cover, or engage, the prison issues after the book?
JM: I did. It was only at the P-I the first time, until about [19]86, and I did cover
corrections issues. I’ve been in the women’s prison at Purdy, the men’s prison at
Shelton. I’ve been to Monroe a few times, usually around some incident. The P-I, I
discovered—and I can speak for the Seattle Times, too—really wasn’t that much more
interested in corrections than the Union Bulletin was. Sad to say, people ignore prisons.
Lock ‘em up, throw away the key. Forget about ‘em. They don’t want to read about it,
unless there’s something sensational going on.
So, yeah, I did cover corrections. I did a series on our mental health system, and
looked at directions. I mean, the number of people with mental issues are way overrepresented in prisons, as are those with addiction issues. And prison only makes it
And we’re fooling ourselves. You can certainly get drugs and booze in prison as easy
as you can on the street, if not more easily. So, are you going to solve an addiction
issue? Forget it.
DB: How did people that you profiled in the book respond when the book came out?
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JM: Well, the book was banned in state prisons for quite a few years. [laughing] You
found out it’s back again, right? The DOC’s—the Department of Corrections—rationale
was this is going to cause trouble when these inmates read about what’s going on.
Some inmates wrote me and said, “You got this wrong,” or, “This is right.” Overall, I
thought the response was fairly positive from those inmates whose judgment I
respected. They pretty much said, “You guys got it right.” You can’t argue with a
picture. You can argue with my words, but, you know, that was an event that happened
inside the walls. In fact, a couple inmates wrote their own accounts after that.
So, I was reasonably pleased. We did—or, I did, Ethan stayed back in New York—but I
did a couple book events. Went to the bookstore in Walla Walla. It was one of those
bookstore things, you know, meet the author at the bookstore at the shopping mall. I
figured there wouldn’t be any inmates who would show up, because they wouldn’t get
out, but a fair number of guards came by and bought the book. Some said to me, “Oh,
we thought it was just going to be inmate love time.” [laughing] “And we thought you
were fair.” So, I felt good about that.
DB: Any response from Vinzant or Spalding or any of the—
JM: No. [chuckles] No.
DB: My last question, and then we’ll—
JM: I should say, just to that remark, I had to laugh. I had a friend who worked in the
State Legislature—Governor Spellman was the Governor at this time—and he
happened to be in the Governor’s office for signing a bill. Just through happenstance,
Concrete Mama was right in front of him, so he took a picture—there was a photograph
taken of this bill signing, in which the book is right in front of the Governor. The bill had
nothing to do with corrections. He just said, “Well, I don’t know whether he read it or
not, but I know he’s got the book.” [laughter]
DB: And the book did win an award from the Governor?
JM: Right, it won the Washington State Book Award.
DB: So, for my last question—and then we’ll open it up to the class—looking back on it
now, are there things that you wish that you had done about the book you included, or
wished you had done differently about the book?
JM: Well, in order to talk to you today, I had to reread the book. I hadn’t read it in
probably 30 years. You know, when you reread something you’ve written 30 or 35
years ago, you think, eh, I could have done this. I think some of the writing in some
places could have been better.
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I felt—I still feel—it’s fair, though. I let inmates say what they wanted to say. I did
check, you know, I used a B.S. detector when I thought I was being fed stuff and I
thought it was wrong, and I didn’t print it. Same with guards.
I thought it was a snapshot of time. Again, it does not attempt to say, “Well, here’s the
solution. Here’s what we ought to do.” It really is a journalistic account of photos and
words of the Washington State Penitentiary at a pretty unique time. That probably won’t
happen again, and whether some of it was done at the penitentiary was wise or not, I
think others will have to decide. I think some was; I think some was unwise. I think
some things worked, and some things didn’t work.
But, what the State did give up on—and most states did—was any attempt to do
anything besides punishment; that you do the crime, you do the time. And I just find
that incredibly stupid, because most of these people are coming out. They’re going to
be our neighbors, and our loved ones, and everything else, and we’ve probably done
nothing but made them worse. There has got to be a better solution.
DB: Great. Well, those are all the questions that I had. So, we have plenty of time—
obviously, we don’t have time to get through all of the questions that you wrote, but I do
want to open it up for you all to ask him the questions that you have. Could be
questions that you wrote down in advance, or things that came up just from our
conversation so far. Yeah, Harry.
MALE: Who are the [unintelligible 00:46:59] that were displaying a large amount of
autonomy that prosecutors in Washington State had? I just wondered if inmates said
anything to you about that, either complaining about the prosecutor assigned to their
case, or just any kind of information that they had for feelings about the prosecution.
Obviously, they were [unintelligible] but…
JM: Yes, that’s a very good point. Prosecutors have great discretion, you know, what
are they going to charge you with? Are they going to take a plea? There was a good
bit—when I talked about specific cases with inmates, you know—“Why are you here?”
“What happened?” You know, I’d hear stories about that.
At this time, or shortly afterwards—I should mention this—and we’re moving back, we
go in cycles—Washington, at this time, had an indeterminate sentencing system, with
some exceptions. (if you committed first degree murder, you were going to do 13 years,
seven months.) With a lot of other crimes, prosecutors certainly had a lot of discretion,
judges had a lot of discretion. And the Parole Board was very powerful. The Parole
Board could adjust sentences. I have one chapter in there about sitting in on a Parole
Board hearing, and how that worked.
But, in the early [19]80s, we moved to determinate sentencing, including three-strikesand-you’re-out prosecution. Which, as you probably read, filled up the prisons even
more. And now, we’re moving back to more indeterminate sentencing. At the
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prosecuting level, I don’t know enough to say whether there’s something causing
prosecutors to be more restrictive or not, but judges are being allowed more discretion.
The Parole Board still existed for crimes committed before indeterminate sentencing,
and now, I believe—you would know this better than I would, Dan—whether it’s returned
to its old place.
DB: Not yet.
JM: Yeah, not yet. But I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that. You know, not all crimes
are the same. Not all perpetrators of crimes are the same. Some are first-time
offenders, some have long rap sheets. What the Parole Board did was try to weigh that.
You can get a lot of good reading about a person just by sitting and talking face-to-face,
and I respected the Parole Board for doing that. They would really try to get at, what
makes this person tick? What have you been doing inside the walls?
The day that we sat with them—oh, there may have been a dozen, 15 inmates whom
the Parole Board interviewed that day, and it was fairly obvious to me—and these are
smart people on the Board; some are former cops, a social worker, maybe a district
court judge, a pretty eclectic group of people, but some people who had some interest
and involvement in corrections—and they could see, right away, this guy’s shining me
on. It’s so evident. You know, most people are pretty perceptive about when
someone’s being truthful and someone’s not. Or, someone’s really changed their life a
bit, and really departed upon a better and healthier path.
But we threw all that out with determinate sentencing. Assault one is assault one,
regardless of what the nature of the crime was, and you were going to do whatever the
sentence was. So, the amount of discretion—you talked about the prosecutorial end,
but there’s certainly discretion at the judicial end. And, whenever it comes back again,
there was a lot of discretion at the Parole Board. It still had limitations. It couldn’t cut a
guy for murder one free. Murder one’s a bad example, but let’s say assault. They
couldn’t cut him free, but it could give him an earlier release date, within certain kind of
MALE: I had a question about the Parole Board also. Pretty much like how interested
or how supportive were the people in prison of the Parole Board? Because I know it did
get abolished, right?
JM: It still exists, I think, for crimes committed prior to whenever the determinate
sentencing came in, in [19]84. So, your question was?
MALE: Were they supportive? Were the people in prison supportive of the Parole
JM: The inmates knew how to play the Parole Board. And the Parole Board would
appear—I think there were nine members—which is an odd number, because they
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would come to the penitentiary, oh, at least twice a month. There would be a twomember group.
There was a Parole Board member who was known to be very hard on sex crimes. You
didn’t want to have you at your parole hearing. There was another guy who was a
former federal marshal. He was tough on something else. This was their reputation. I
didn’t really do any story to say whether it was based in fact or not, but that was that
Or, there was a Parole Board member who was known to be very favorable to a
religious appeal, you know, if you went in and quoted the Bible. Some inmates
[laughing] quoted the Bible so ridiculously, you knew they didn’t know the Bible, and
they were just shining the Parole Board. And the Parole Board could certainly see that,
So, yeah, sometimes, in fact, inmates would say, “Oh, I got sick,” because they knew
that the two Parole Board members who would conduct their hearing were probably not
favorable to their crime. So, there was a bit of game-playing each way.
By and large, I knew all, at least by face, and knew two or three of them. There was a
Catholic priest on the Parole Board, who became a good source and a good friend.
Another woman who had been in the juvenile justice system was very good—I thought
they were very good people, but we threw them out for determinate sentencing.
MALE: Just to add to, in the intro, you mentioned that like one of the people that were
in prison went in for the annual appearance before the Parole Board, so it was like an
annual thing? Just every year, they just reviewed their case?
JM: Pretty much, unless it was a—well, even with those who had long sentences, who
weren’t going to be released for a long time. The Parole Board had this philosophy at
the time, well, we should meet with all inmates, just so they can give us feedback. “How
are you doing? What’s working for you? Are you getting any kind of treatment for your
You know, it was a good experience for the Parole Board, and, I think, for—I remember
an inmate, they really shortened his sentence. He went out and he was high-fiving
everybody, and he was so happy. I think that was a positive experience, certainly for
him. But also for Parole Board members.
Now, of course, they were vulnerable, because if you released a guy, or you cut his
sentence back quite a bit—allowed for his release, rather—and he went out and did
some major crime, you were going to be—there could be political repercussions for you.
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That’s why they were in twos, because they had to agree—and often, I found that the
twos tended to be someone who was pretty liberal with someone who was pretty
conservative, in terms of applications of release dates, and permission for early release.
FEMALE: I was wondering what you found most unexpected about the prison when
you spent your time there?
JM: Oh, I found so many unexpected things. Ethan took photos at the sweat lodge
there, the Native American sweat lodge. There was a Native American group, and they
said, “Well, come in and sweat with us.” I thought, that means I’ve got to strip naked
here, and get in there. There’s no guards around. [laughing] So I sort of said, “Well,
okay.” I trusted that George Walks-on-Top, who was the Native American guy who sort
of said we were okay, and therefore, we were cool.
Ethan says, “Look, my camera lenses are going to fog up in there. You go in, and I’ll
take pictures.” So, stripped down, with about six or seven other guys, and we sat on
these rocks, and, man, we sweated profusely. It was not fun putting our clothes back
on again, although it was a fairly cool fall day, if I recall.
Again, I’ve lost your original question in storytelling.
FEMALE: What was the most unexpected…
JM: Yeah, so that was unexpected. I knew that the bikers ran their bikes in the big
yard, so there were some of those things I expected. Unexpected, to me, were the sort
of sexual relationships. Early on, I asked this guy, who was a real tough con-boss
leader. This was a really ill-advised question, because he had a [scare quotes] “punk,”
a vulnerable younger inmate who he had sex with, and who he had in his cell. You
could say, well, it was consensual. Well, kinda maybe. I mean, the inmate was trading
sex for protection, basically.
I said, “So, this guy,”I said to him, “You and Tina”—that was his punk’s name—“you
guys have a relationship.” [laughing] I don’t know I could use the kind of language he
uses in class here. He said, “Well, yeah. I fuck him.” [laughter] And I said, “Okay. Do
you fuck guys on the outside?” And he looked at me like, “You stupid asshole. You
saying I’m a homosexual?” [laughter] He said, “No! No!”
So, that made me think about, what is the nature of sex in prison? There’s this sort of
relationship between quote “jockers” and “punks.” There were certainly consensual
relationships in which there may not have been exploitation, but it’s a trade for favors.
There were transvestites. I’m not aware that there were transgender people, or maybe
there were, some of whom traded sex for privileges—better access, drugs, booze,
better cell, televisions, whatever.
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And sex was thought of—because it’s an all-male environment, though there were some
female corrections officers, but never in the cellblocks—that, you know, these are
guys—prisoners are typically guys in their twenties; high testosterone levels—so, they
thought sex, and wanted it, and got it, in maybe a different way than they did in the real
world. Again, another kind of perversion that occurs in this imprisoned, all-male society.
So, it made me think about—in fact, I think I say in the book I never had thought of this.
One day, Ethan, who was quite a bit shorter than me, got a note in his camera bag
about—I think I quoted in the book about it—“I’ve seen you parading around here with
your big, fine, white ass.” [laughter] It frightened him, as it should have. [laughter] I
said, “Okay, what’s our response to this?” We decided that I’m his jocker, he’s my
punk. [laughter] I don’t know if anybody believed that, but that I was going to look out
for him. Don’t mess with my punk sort of thing. This was prison thinking, right? But this
was how, for many, sex was perceived.
The fish, the new guys that came into the joint on a bus in chains from the Shelton
Corrections Center to Walla Walla, all the con bosses, or their designees, they would
come out, I think once a week, to the gate in the evening—we watched them come in
there in handcuffs and chains—they would check them out. They’d check them out, is
there some old buddy of mine who’s reoffended, and I’m going to find out and we’re
going to hit it off? Is there some young kid who I want to hit on? Is there somebody
who looks like they might be a good conduit for contraband?
That sounds totally exploitative, but that’s the sort of—you know, if you’re going to
survive in this environment, and not get victimized, you’ve got to act in a very different
way. It’s sort of like how my language changed. I’ve got to be a tough guy out now in
the world, because that’s what you learn in prison.
And if you’re not tough, you’ve got to give it up, or you ask to be put into protective
custody, which means you’re in a single cell, but you’re in the cell most of the day.
Isolated. It’s no fun. But if you believe that’s the compromise you have to make to
protect yourself, a fair number of inmates do it. In fact, the number of inmates in
protective custody is a pretty good indication of how much violence, and how formidable
the environment is. Because you don’t check in without a good reason. But if you’ve
got it figured out that your life’s at risk, or you’ve burnt somebody on a drug deal, you
might want to check into protective custody.
FEMALE: Speaking of violence, in a lot of the readings where we’ve read in class,
there was a guard-on-prisoner abuse. Did you ever witness that, like guards being
abusive to prisoners?
JM: Certainly verbal abuse. I didn’t see a guard hitting a prisoner, although I was told
such things happen. But, yeah, a lot of verbal abuse. It’s a nasty place. And a lot of
these guys, with no experience with urban populations, and the language was different,
you know, they were abusive, to be honest.
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I should say, on the other hand, there were some guards that inmates liked, and trusted,
and, I think, in some cases, actually acted as good mentors to some inmates. I mean,
this is a boring job, being a correctional officer on a tier block, and if you’re not going to
talk to anybody, that’s going to be a long day.
So, yeah, inmates talk to you, and you talk to inmates. You’ve got to be careful about
what you say, and many inmates would say you never talk to a guard out of earshot of
somebody else, because he could be giving up information. You could get a rap as a
snitch, so you’ve got to be careful how you talk to guards. Other inmates, the more
powerful ones, weren’t bothered by that. You know, “I’ll talk to the man when I want to.”
FEMALE: I’m going to follow up on the guard thing. Do you think that, while you guys
were there in the prison, everybody was kind of on their best behavior? And then,
progressively, as you were there, like “Oh, the guys are here again.” Did it seemed to
be kind of normalized, and things were elevated, like they probably really are, when you
first got there?
JM: Basically, yeah. I don’t think they were on good behavior the first day we arrived.
[laughter] I think they were suspicious, maybe kept their distance. You know, what are
these guys up to?
But, again, the inmate leaders knew us from working at the newspaper, so we weren’t
brand-new faces. I think they may have been suspicious about, well, what’s their real
agenda? And there was a lot of thinking—you get it from the paranoia and suspicion in
prison—what are they really doing? What’s the story behind the story here? There was
And I think that dissipated. We worked regularly—again, we recognized the inmate
power structure—we worked regularly with the president of the Resident Council, and
the club leaders. Kenny Agtuca, the guy I profile as the con boss—who was a very
talented, smart guy, but could be absolutely ruthless, too—we worked with him.
So, yeah, I think we got kind of normalized. You know, they’d certainly noticed, when
we switched, after three months—because our strategy was we’d find an interesting
inmate. We were looking for one to profile for each part—and we had to try a few
sometimes—and then, we’d follow that inmate around for a day, spend the day with
them. And so we did that, sometimes not every day we did that. Sometimes we went to
club meetings, or social events.
Then, when we switched to the guards’ side, we followed guards around. And then, at
that point, some of the inmates said, “Don’t talk to those guys. They might be giving up
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I think I mentioned there was—and there were some tough, for me, ethical situations
about information. Because information/misinformation can cause someone to get
stabbed, beat up or something else.
So, we were in a cell block, just Ethan and I and the lifers. These were guys that had
life sentences in, was it sixth wing? And we weren’t very attentive, and at certain times,
the cell doors close. They pull a bar, and all the metal cell bars close on the whole tier,
for a count. And we happened to be in a cell for count, and count takes about half an
hour. And when we went into the cell, the two guys in there said, “We’re going to
smoke some weed. Do you want some?” [laughter] I thought, this is a bad idea. Not
that I hadn’t smoked weed on the outside, but I should not be smoking weed in the joint.
[laughter] So, we respectfully declined. They said, “Oh, it’s really good weed.” And I
said, “Okay, but no thanks.”
So, they were lighting up and smoking a couple joints. And then, we’re sitting there,
and Ethan’s taking pictures, or we’re talking, and the doors shut, because we hadn’t
paid attention to the count time. I thought, we’re in here for at least a half hour with two
guys smoking weed. If a guard comes by, this probably is not going to be helpful.
[laughing] Luckily, no guard came by, the cell opened again, and we thanked them for
their hospitality.
Inmates treated their cells as houses. They invite you in to what they call their “house,”
and some of them generally that were well connected, or that had funds, they had nice
houses. They had nice blankets, and a color television, and magazines, and
coffeemakers. They drank a lot of coffee inside the joint.
Again, I decided not to drink pruno. That’s the prison alcohol. I didn’t think that would
be wise either. Plus, I did have some once, and it tastes awful. [laughter] This is
brewing up something that you can make alcohol as fast as possible. Often, they’d use
their toilets, which is not very . . . plugged up the toilet, and brew tomato puree, [which] I
was told, brewed up in 18 hours. You could get alcohol out of it in 18 hours.
So, they figured we weren’t too into pruno, but we were always offered coffee.
Sometimes if there was a connection with the food hall, mess hall, we would be offered
food. You know, this is the kind of hospitality that people extend in the real world, and it
ought to be encouraged. But, yeah.
So, being invited to someone’s house would mean “We think you guys are safe. You’re
not going snitch us out for anything. We could even smoke weed in front of you, and
you’re not going to tell.” Officially, they would be punished for it if they got caught, so
that suggested a level of trust in us was good. Although I don’t know if a guard had
caught us what they might have thought. “Wait a minute now. You guys are sitting
there smoking weed, and you’re not telling us, and that’s an infraction?”
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Luckily, we weren’t put in that situation. And we wouldn’t have told, but they could have
tossed us out.
Thank you for this water. I’m going to drink most of it by the time we’re done.
FEMALE: I know you talked about how you tried to be really objective with your book,
but did you personally like ever feel really conflicted in hearing somebody’s life story, or
like something that was going on in prison, and then you hear that they were in there for
like a violent crime or a murder?
JM: Did I feel conflicted about that when I realized what they were in there for?
FEMALE: Well, like when you mentioned seeing them like as a human being? You
know? You get there, and you start to know them, and like get their humor, and you
see them as humans. And then you find out they’re in there for like whatever reason?
Did you ever feel like weird or conflicted about it?
JM: I don’t know if I actually felt conflict, but there were some—it’s like the real world.
There were some prisoners who I was not comfortable with, you know, that made me
feel, ew. Or, that I felt, this guy’s just shining me on. He’s just lying to me.
I ran into, in fact, the guy who was—sort of a small world we live in—Jimmy Joe Lucero,
who was head of the Chicano Club, but was ousted by a much tougher, more
manipulative guy named Manny Parejo, a rapist. But Jimmy Joe was a member of the
Mexican Mafia. Very likable guy.
I remember his tattoos. [chuckles] He had the Mexican Mafia tattooed tears running
from his eye. It was kind of a weird tattoo, to think about putting tears near your eye.
And he had something on his chest like “Chinga tu madre”—“Fuck your mother,” or
something. But his back had a beautiful tattoo of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Go figure.
I liked Jimmy Joe, and I spent a good bit of time with him. Long prison record. A guy
who was probably not going to make it on the street, because all he had left was his
associates, former crime partners, and that was sort of his undoing.
But I ran into him at a tavern in Seattle about 20 years ago. And I debated, should I go
up and reintroduce myself to Jimmy Joe? And I decided I would, and so I went up and
talked to him. We had a beer, and I said, “How’s it going for you?” He said, “Well, I’ve
been out 18 months. That’s the longest I’ve ever been out.” And I said, “Are you going
back?” “Oh, no, I’m not going back.”
And at this point, he was a little older. He may have been in his late forties by then.
And there’s some truth to that, you know, as people age out of prison. So, hopefully he
wasn’t going back.
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He told me, “You were okay to me in that book, but you kind of fucked over some other
guys,” and we talked about that. But I often wonder, some who probably were not so
happy with what I wrote, whether if I would see them again afterwards. [laughter]
You know, I don’t hide my—well, one, I was a little bit paranoid, because the previous
prison reporter at the Walla Walla Union Bulletin—and it had been kind of a raucous
time when he did the prison beat, too—and he was probably more sympathetic to staff,
or the powers that be, than I was, or at least he was less skeptical of them. So, that
means he wasn’t particularly popular with inmates. Not that I was particularly popular
But he told me, “I was so glad to get off the prison beat, because I know they were after
me. You know, these guys get out and they come after you.”
And he told me that he lived in a house on the other side of town in Walla Walla, but
there was a window right at the shower, which seems a little weird. And so he would
duck down in the shower when he took a shower. And he told me this story, and I
thought—I said, “Why?” He said, “Well, I could take a bullet to the head right through
that window.” [laughter]
And I said, “The joint’s really gotten to this guy.” [laughing] And he was a pretty good
reporter—he went on to The Oregonian—but I thought, gawd, this has already affected
my language and my behavior. What else is going to happen to me? [laughter]
But I think, you know, I’m only there for four months. These guys are there for years.
Think of what it does to their personalities. I mean, trying to be a nice guy—unless
you’re big and beefy and tough—in prison is just inviting yourself to get victimized at a
place like Walla Walla. Which is too bad, because the majority of guys just want to do
their time and get out.
FEMALE: Did you ever speak to anyone in solitary confinement?
JM: Yes. I spoke to—the one chapter is about a guy on Death Row, who subsequently
was taken off Death Row. He was not executed. I think Washington has executed
three people in the last 20-some years. There was not an execution during my time in
Walla Walla. The late [19]70s was a time in which we were anti-death penalty. Then,
we became enthusiastic about it again, and now we’re less enthusiastic again.
There were two places—Death Row was pretty much solitary confinement. And then,
there was a place called Big Red, the segregation unit, where, if you were a supermisbehaver—you know, you stabbed somebody, you got in a fight, you were really a
problem—you were put in Big Red, 23 hours a day.
Since I was in Walla Walla, they’ve even built a more secure segregation unit that is just
inhumane. You can’t even see anybody else. You get a half-hour of exercise. There’s
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a little bit of daylight up above. Federal prisons, and other state prisons, have some
horribly isolating experiences like that. Imagine what that does to your mind. What is
that going to do to your possibilities of ever coming out again and living a life without
It’s pretty awful. And inmates reacted, once you were put in those sort of places, was
as you’d expect. If they had mental issues, they got worse. They were incredibly
belligerent. They’d save up shit and urine and throw it at guards as they walked down
the tier. This is the kind of behavior that that kind of environment induces, in my
DB: The person you spoke to at Big Red was Ed Mead, right?
JM: Yes. Yeah, Ed Mead, in the chapter you’re reading he was a very interesting
prisoner. Very bright guy; politically astute; organized prisoners’ rights; organized rights
around discriminated minorities, sexual minorities and others. And a true radical, and
He was kind of an exception, though. There were other politicized inmates, not that
were as well educated perhaps as him, but that certainly sensed that something’s wrong
here, and collectively, we can be more powerful in addressing these sort of grievances.
Again, that was the idea that Vinzant had with the Resident Council. Hey, if the food
sucks, if people are being beat up, tell me about it and let’s work out a solution. That’s
what we do in the real world. Why should prison be so different?
MALE: Kind of on that point of Ed Mead, in the book it says, “The post-revolutionary
goal was to abolish prisons altogether, replacing them with radical therapy, peer
reinforcement, self-criticism and reeducation.” Do you ever think that that vision will be
realized, or, to a certain degree, in the future?
JM: Well, we’ve seen pieces of that vision. I don’t know how to be nonpartisan about
this, but the existing administration—Republican administration—is unfortunate,
because there has been, until recently, a real desire for we’ve got to do something to
end mass incarceration. We’ve got to do something different. The Republicans’ point
of view is we’re spending too much money on this. It’s a waste of money—which is
true. The Democrats’ point of view is that it’s inhumane. And so there, I think, was a
real possibility—until Trump—of actually doing something on those sort of things.
At the local level, we’ve seen—in states and counties—some very interesting work with
drug courts; with diversion programs; with reconciliation programs. Do I envision the
day when prisons will be abolished? It’s hard to imagine. We’d have to really have
something else.
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What I was struck by with Walla Walla—it’s one of the chapters in the book—Kenny
Agtuca and Al Gilcrest, who were the two most powerful inmates when I was there, they
started out in juvenile at a very young age, you know, 12, 13. And it was like this was
their career path. You know, from juvenile, from Green Hill, from the various facilities of
juvenile detentions, to Monroe, and then to Walla Walla.
So, that says to me that we’ve got to do something very early on that’s more effective;
early intervention to take young people on a different path. Walla Walla is just going to
make them worse. So, where are the steps early on where intervention and alternatives
are going to help?
That’s part of a larger-society picture, too, of other issues, I mean. Issues of poverty,
issues of mental health, of addiction, of lack of opportunity. Why do we have a
homeless crisis? Because people can’t pay the rent. Why can’t they pay the rent?
Because house prices have gotten so high.
I mean, our prison system is a part of this broader world; and so, to answer your
question, I’m hopeful, but it’s such a big problem. And there’s a strong belief in
punishment. I mean, for the pro-punishment people, they do have a point. The two or
three years the guy’s in prison, he can’t assault anybody, other than other inmates,
guards, or someone who might visit. So, you’ve reduced that, but still, in three years,
he’s back out again, more likely angrier and meaner than he was before.
FEMALE: Going back to your chapter about Ed Mead, I was wondering if, after this
book was released, or recently, have you ever met up with Ed Mead afterwards?
Because there are pictures of him with his lover, and I know that he was [later] married
[to a woman]. Was there any controversy about that, or anything?
JM: I had a little contact with Ed, just in the year maybe after the book was published. I
had to have Dan tell me whether he was still alive or not.
I guess he went on and got married. Again, it’s sort of my point about sex in prison.
Now, I’m guessing that Ed hooked up with Danny Atterbury. He was an interesting
fellow, too. Bright guy, attractive guy. And so, you’ve got no women in prison, and you
tend to be heterosexual, but here’s an alternative. Or maybe Ed’s bisexual, I don’t
know. I can’t judge him.
But I guess it says sort of like we’ve gotten to a point in society today where gender is
much more fluid. In prison, there’s only one gender, or men who are transgender or
transvestites, but are still biologically men. It’s interesting what they might do with a
post-op in prison. I don’t know; I wasn’t aware of any in Walla Walla while I was there.
So, it’s not just about the physical act of sex. It’s also about the broader thing about
intimacy, and having an intimate relationship, and sharing with somebody. So, I looked
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at some of these relationships between convicts, and I could be cynical and say, “This is
exploitative; weak guy with powerful guy.”
But I saw others, I said, you know, they need a friend. [chokes up] They need [clears
throat] to express all the kind of—I get emotional about it—but, the emotions that we
feel as human beings. And this is a cruel place, where you hunger for that.
You know, prison is full of a lot of sadness. It’s also full of humor, occasional joy, irony.
But it was the sadness that got to me at times. Now, could I show this sadness? Could
I have talked—could I have cried with inmates? Whoa! [laughter] Got to be careful
with that. Yeah, I had inmates tear up in talking to me. You know? So, why shouldn’t I
be as human as they are?
FEMALE: I’m just kind of curious, kind of with that sadness, you know, I know now, you
talked a little bit about, in the introduction, how there was like a psychiatrist. Are there,
or were there, any kind of programs for people who are in prison that they could go and
have therapy? Do they have an outlet, I guess?
JM: I can’t speak for now. I suspect there’s some programs. I mean, AA is typically in
prison. Certainly, AA was there, and NA. But what I was struck by at Walla Walla—
again, something unexpected—was a lot of the programs were inmate creations.
There’s a chapter in there—a delightful guy named John Bateman, and his rehabilitation
idea is that inmates need to rehabilitate themselves.
So, he had created this program called Conology. It was a very structured program,
kind of like earning an educational degree. He was allowed to have outside speakers
come in. And they awarded Ph.Ds in Conology, not because you were such a good
criminal, but because you knew what criminal life was like, and you understood,
hopefully, if you completed your Ph.D., what had led you to prison in the first place, and
what might keep you out.
Some of the guards saw this as a total scam, so he gets a nicer cell or something. But
the inmates in the program, they met regularly. They seemed to me to be doing some
positive things, in terms of self-development.
So, that was one program, but there was…you know, there were outside programs that
the JCs—I love the name of the JCs at Walla Walla at that time, were the Free Horizon
JCs, [laughing] because they wanted to see a free horizon beyond the penitentiary.
There were recreational groups, but most of this stuff at that time was created by the
residents themselves. I don’t think they were ever measured for their efficacy, but it
seemed to me that some of them were doing some very positive things that, hopefully,
would contribute to the kind of development that would keep somebody out of prison
once they were released.
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I guess you kind of talked about it earlier, I think, about the Kenny Agtuca gentleman. I
was reading like one of the newspapers Abolitionist, and it kept mentioning a woman
who had the same last name as him, and it was like about a family support group. I was
just curious about like hearing about support and everything, did you hear from the
people in prison like how supportive their families were, and like outside of prison, how
JM: I can tell you an interesting story about Kenny Agtuca. The prison chaplain was a
good friend of ours. In fact, he married my wife and I in Walla Walla—I’m Catholic—
Father Robert Beh. Great guy. He’s deceased now. In fact, he was a graduate of the
University of Portland, who did an alumni magazine piece on him, and quoted Parley
Edwards, the head of the guards’ union, about Bob Bay. And they said, “Oh, Father
Beh, his heart is as big as his ass.” [laughter] And he was kind of a big guy, so
[laughing] I guess it was a compliment.
But he was very non-judgmental with inmates, and, I think, a very positive role model in
the prison. So, we had him over to the house with some other folks…who else was
there? I think he was active with a mothers’ support group, and there were several of
them from Seattle who were coming over. And he told me about this, and I said, “Well,
why don’t you come over? We’ll have a backyard barbecue at our house in Walla
So, one of the women was Kenny Agtuca’s mom, who was very…I mean, you couldn’t
say anything wrong about Kenny, and I wasn’t going to badmouth her son in front of
her. [chuckles] And I realized that this is—and I believe his father was still in the
picture—this is an intact family. This is a mother who has stuck with this kid. Basically,
he’s been in and out of prison since age 12 or 13.
So, it made me think, well, hmm, it seems like, from my just superficial conversations
with her at the barbecue in the backyard, that this woman has his best interests at heart,
but maybe is unable to see part of what her son is. I don’t know. But that was ironic,
because that was rare that families were that involved in their sons’ lives.
It was so difficult to get to Walla Walla in and then deal with the visiting room. Many
inmates had no visitors. No visitors whatsoever. There were inmates who couldn’t tell
me whether their parents or their siblings were even alive. They didn’t get mail.
MALE: Pretty much exactly what I was wondering when I was reading. One of the
newsletters was mentioning how they’re having a meetup in Seattle at her home.
JM: This is recent?
MALE: No, this was [19]88, The Abolitionist, one of the prisoner newspapers. And like
pretty much how she was like traveling across the state just to go have another meeting
with families over in Eastern Washington. And that was just interesting to me, because
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I feel like a lot of people had gotten in trouble in the past, like in my life, or just people I
was seeing, like their families would like disown them like after. Like “You got in trouble.
Don’t talk to me anymore.”
JM: Hm-mm. I Googled a couple people. I Googled Bobby Tsow, who was the head of
the Bikers’ Club at the time, just sort of curious about where did these people end up
today? And I Googled Tsow and found out that he is a drug and alcohol therapist in
Portland. I thought, well, that seems like he’s landed well, you know. Didn’t mention
anything about his prison experience, so I don’t know how long he’d been out or not.
So, I guess an important thing is these guys come out, and prisons have an influence
on what they do when they come out, and landing on your feet after spending a whole
career in prison—in Kenny Agtuca’s situation, he’s at Walla Walla again now, I did find
him—it’s tough.
MALE: How about Al Gilcrest?
JM: Did I Google him the other day?
DB: I did. He got released. There was an article in a journal…
JM: That’s right, you sent me that.
DB: …that Seattle University publishes, the Law and Social Justice Journal that talks
about getting out, and being a parent and a grandparent. It doesn’t say what he’s doing
for work, but he got after something like 30 or 40 years. Yeah, if you Google his name
and Seattle University, you’ll find an article that he wrote.
So, we have time for about two or three more questions. So, Tim and Zarefah.
MALE: In your experience, how many stories that the inmates had were just like
absolutely like, why are they in prison?
JM: You mean like taking no responsibility?
MALE: No, no, no, not in that sense. More like this guy was just jaywalking, and now
he’s a prisoner. You know what I mean? Like there’s no reason why he should be
there. Like how many, in your experience, of the inmates that you’ve talked to and
conversed with were in that kind of situation?
DB: You mean incarceration seemed unjust or unnecessary?
JM: Well, nobody at Walla Walla is in for jaywalking or smoking marijuana. I mean,
these are the toughest sentences and the longest sentences. And so I don’t know that
anyone would say, “Why am I here?” They might dispute why they were convicted, or
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that there were circumstances that the court ignored, or the judge ignored. I got a lot of
that. That’s why I had a source in the records department to check out what they told
me against what the record said. And the truth is probably somewhere in between.
Yeah, there was a lot of questioning of “Why is my sentence so long?” “Why am I here
when the guy who committed the crime with me got off in two years?” You know,
there’s so many inequities in our system, and that’s a very legitimate question. Times
that would seem on the face of them to be equal, in terms of what was done, often got
very, very different sentences, depending on jurisdictions, prosecutors, courts.
So, yeah, there was a fair amount of bitching about what happened. In other cases,
though, I had inmates very much own up to it. The crimes that were not owned up to,
mainly for their own protection, were sex crimes. The absolute bottom of the prison
pecking order is what they called “baby rapos”—child abusers—many of whom had to
check into protective custody, because part of the idea of inmate justice is, you know, if
you fuck babies, we’re going to fuck you,” by some. So, if you had a sex crime, you
didn’t talk about it. Yet, if you were tough—Manny Parejo, whose picture is in there in
the Chicano Club, is a rapist, and no one was going to mess with that guy.
So, it’s basically, if you go to prison—a prison like Walla Walla—you’ve got to figure out
how to protect yourself—muscles help, and connections help—and not be victimized.
And if you’re known to have money, or you’ve got a visitor who can bring in dope, you’re
going to be leaned on, so many of them had few visitors.
Again, I’m not speaking of everybody. I’m speaking of the toughest, most incorrigible
part of the population, which is why, to get back to your abolition issue, I don’t know
what you do with these guys. I don’t want these guys living next door. They are
unrepentant. And they’re going to rip me off, or fuck me over. That element is in prison.
But we need to do a better job between discriminating between that element, and a lot
of other ones who we’ve given far too much time, or who have really, genuinely—the
word “penitentiary” is that you’re penitent. Right? That you somehow become penitent.
They say, “I screwed up, and I’m going to do better”; that you redeem yourself.
And I’m convinced that there are guys in Walla Walla who redeemed themselves. You
know, 40 percent of them don’t ever come back, don’t ever reoffend. And we need to
be more discriminating on how we treat those different categories, those folks.
FEMALE: I was just wondering, how did your experience differ between the men’s
prisons that you visited and the women’s prisons?
JM: I have spent very little time at Purdy, which is the only women’s prison I’ve seen. I
did a couple stories there when I was at the P-I. So, I would really be reluctant to say—
some of the same things are true. I think the powerful—they may be powerful for
different reasons—women would still have some way in determining the environment.
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But Purdy was never like Walla Walla, to my knowledge, in terms of allowing a lot of
inmate privileges, and a Resident Council and so on, so it didn’t have the experience
that Walla Walla had. The sex issue, the pregnancy issue, the fact that many of the
guards are still male, and the abuse by male guards in women’s prisons, you know, I’m
saying more from reading than my own personal experience.
In fact, one of the stories that took me to Purdy—what was her name? I want to say
Patty Duke, but she was the actress, but it was a name similar to that—was a woman
who’d had a whole long history of DUIs, and then drove drunk—she was a really young
woman, early twenties—and got in an accident that killed a kid. And she was sent to
prison for a pretty long sentence.
There was an outrage, you know: Was this long enough? Why wasn’t she caught
earlier, and so on? So I went and interviewed her. I asked her if she was getting sober,
and she looked me like, “Are you kidding me?” [laughing] “There’s booze here!” She
said, “I’m trying, but this isn’t a good place to get sober.” Ultimately, I don’t know
whether she did or not, but she was released later.
So, I think there’s certain characteristics, but I suspect it’s a very different experience in
a lot of ways, too, and I’d just be BS-ing to talk more than that. I don’t know.
DB: Ryan and Duha, you’re next.
MALE: I know today, you were talking about in prison, the sense of rehabilitation does
not work. I was wondering, in your experiences with different guards, and different
wardens, did they generally believe that what they were doing was actually helping the
population at the prison?
JM: Let me correct the first thing. I don’t think rehabilitation doesn’t work. Is that what
you said, that rehabilitation doesn’t work, generally? I don’t think it’s been tried very
well, or done right. I certainly saw, with education, results at Walla Walla, and that’s a
form of rehabilitation.
The Vinzant philosophy was, we want to connect prison inmates with businesses in
Walla Walla—the ones that are going to come out—so that they have jobs. The
community was pretty resistant to that, frankly. Again, Walla Walla was the worst place
for a prison, to think they’re going to have jobs. So, I don’t want to say that
rehabilitation never works. I think it has, in some situations, but we basically abandoned
it in favor of punishment.
Now, your question about guards. Well, it was a boring job, and a tough job, and a
dangerous job, increasingly so in the late [19]70s. So, there was a lot of turnover. The
primary reason that there were guards was they needed the money. They needed a
job. They could all get a job pretty easily.
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Training, especially since they were shorthanded, was very brief. I don’t think there was
any kind of sensitivity in saying, well, who are these guys that you’re supposed to be
supervising? Where do they come from? What are their backgrounds? Who are they?
That said, there were guards—probably Edwards was one of them—who had a much
more understanding and sophisticated view of his charges, if you will. He wasn’t naïve,
you know, he wasn’t going to have the wool pulled over his eyes. But there were
inmates that would get letters of recommendation from Parley, because he established
a relationship with them, and he knew he was a good judge of character, that they were
going to be okay. You know, there were guards like that. “I’ll help you on the outside.”
There were other guards, often newbies, who were leaned on, and brought in drugs.
Or, were paid to bring in drugs. So, they were kind of all over the place. But they were
such a different population than the inmate population that it made for misunderstanding
and conflict.
FEMALE: Going back to Zarefah’s point about women and male prisons. Why do you
think there is such a focus on particularly men dominated prisons? Like most of the
stories that we hear, or most of the documentaries that are out there, are focused on
just all-male prisons, and that kind of ratio between—like we don’t know as much about
what goes on in women’s prisons, where their issues aren’t always in the forefront, or
discussed about as the issues in male-dominant prisons. Why do you think that is?
JM: Well, am I right, Dan? About 80 percent—no, 90 percent of prison inmates are
men, so that’s the first reason. I mean, until recently, there weren’t many women in
prison. So, most of the population is men, so women tend to get ignored, in women’s
And frankly, men create more problems. That sounds like a sexist comment, doesn’t it?
But I don’t read about stabbings, and riots, and this sort of thing going on typically in
women’s prisons. There’s victimization and cruelty, to be sure, but not to the degree, I
believe—and I don’t have a lot of evidence for this—than there is in male prisons.
FEMALE: I’m just going to touch on that, because I actually spent time in prison, almost
a year ago now. I was in Purdy, and you were saying something in the introduction
about how, you know, the prisoners that like keep to themselves, that are like, you
know, they try to be like the less…I don’t know, like they stay out of sight of other
prisoners, like they’re more victimized.
But I was like thinking about it, and I was comparing it to like when I was in prison. And
it’s like it seems like a lot of the women who are like the troublemakers, or they are the
ones that are more difficult to new people, or even just others, they kind of like stick with
each other. You know what I mean? You could like see someone new and just like you
could just stick to yourself and the people you know in a women’s prison and fly under
the radar.
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JM: Hm-mm. I think that’s an excellent point. To protect yourself in prison, you need to
have friends. And the tough, kind of troublemaker crowd does tend to stick together,
and use their authority accordingly.
A lot of the clubs that had existed in Walla Walla, these were sort of protection things,
too, you know. I can bring my buddies—if we’ve got a dispute, I’ve got people backing
me. I’ve got people who’ll watch my back, and they’ll take care of me.
To try to go to prison, and quietly do your own time, as an introvert, not associating with
other people, would be a challenge. Everybody would leave you alone. They’d figure
you were a quote “ding,” you know? “He’s a mental case. Leave him alone.”
So, yeah, you could probably get by. But it’s like the chapter I wrote on the fish, the guy
that comes into prison and he’s scared. And he has to figure out, you know, where am I
going to live? He’s not necessarily going to live in the cell he was assigned, because it
may not work with the other inmates. They said, “We don’t want you,” and kick him out.
Who’s he going to associate with? The first time someone leans on him to say, “Can
you bring in drugs?” Or, “Can you give it up?” You know? Who’s going to help him
And I suspect, as you said, to some extent, that’s the same thing in a woman’s prison,
huh? Yeah, yeah.
FEMALE: When you’re innocent. Like there are girls that come in that, you know, have
been there before, a bunch of times. They’re like “This is my sixth time here.” And
they’ll want to run their unit, or kick you out of their room.
JM: Yeah. Thank you for sharing that.
DB: John, I want to thank you very much for coming and talking to us today. We really
appreciate it.
JM: Well, thank you. Thank you for good questions, and your attentiveness.